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Tell the truth or keep a confidence secret — part 4

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Tell the truth or keep a confidence secret — part 4

Is it always an unequivocal good to tell the truth? Is it always beneficial to keep something confidential, even secret? The Bible contains a lot of wisdom on these questions. And an ethic about when, and when not, to share information — especially personal information.

This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the ethics and practice of confidentiality and truth-telling in the Christian community in the light of Scripture — especially the Biblical wisdom tradition. The principles are applicable, of course, in many other contexts such as clubs, families, schools, places of work, villages, blocks of flats, etc. The wisdom of Scripture, inspired as it is by the Creator, is true for all human beings everywhere.

Read the first post, introducing the theme of the series, by clicking here.

The second post, on the imperative to withhold personal information, is here.

The third post, on the imperative to impart personal information, is here.

This fourth post makes some concluding comments and gives practical suggestions how we might better outwork a good ethic of when to impart or withhold personal information.

The imperatives to withhold or to impart personal information — truth-telling and confidentiality

When is it a virtue and when is it a vice to share or withhold personal information? And what are the dynamics that make sharing either a vice or a virtue? These considerations cover the sort of practical moral decisions every one of us has to make often, if not daily. Scripture is not silent on these dilemmas. I have opened up Biblical wisdom on these themes in the previous three posts, and also here and here.

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This fourth post has some concluding observations about truth-telling.

The ethical studies set out in the three earlier posts have revealed that there are good secrets and bad secrets; good reasons for imparting information and bad reasons. It is not possible, therefore, to prescribe a simple set of rules.

Clearly the ethics of confidentiality and truth-telling are related. To some extent it can be asserted that what guards us from an unrighteous use of the imperative of truth-telling is the imperative to keep a confidence secret; and what guards us from an unrighteous use of the imperative to keep a confidence secret is the imperative of truth-telling. We find that the duties to withhold and impart information are in a delicate tension, each modifying and limiting the other in a virtuous circle that builds up the community in light.

It is also clear that each of these imperatives would produce distortions in any community that took them in an unqualified way. However, the difficulty of qualifying these ethical demands can leave us adrift in a sea of relativism. This is a danger that the wisdom literature can help us to avoid:

“Together, the wisdom books of the Old Testament bear witness to the dangers of moral fascism, on the one hand, and moral confusion and anarchy, on the other.” (Brown 1996, p.21).

Will a casuistic approach help?

Most ancient law codes were casuistic including a lot of the Old Testament. Casuistic laws are scenario-based laws. They propose a case and say what you would do in that case. If this situation occurs and if that condition is met then this law applies — otherwise not (see for example, Deut. 15:12-17). Apodictic law is in the form of direct command (“Do this…” or “Do not do that…”) Apodictic law applies generally. (Fee & Stuart 1983, pp139-143).

A casuistic approach initially appears likely to yield a working ethic for everyday life, but life throws us experiences that are not accounted for by existing categories. As we have seen in this series of posts, while creation-order wisdom is a generally true description of what happens in the world, it does not adequately explain every experience in life, so its rules do not always ‘work’.

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Does Immanuel Kant and Kantian philosophy help?

My brief interaction with Banks and Clark, who write for professional social workers, suggests that practitioners have found that the traditionally framed duty of confidentiality (to keep a confidence secret) tends towards the isolation of the client from the very community that could be part of their healing (Clark 2000, p.190). Banks and Clark both question what they describe as the Kantian practice of basing the ethics of confidentiality on a structure of individual autonomy. They argue instead for a new foundation for confidentiality: the recognition that human beings are communal beings and so the fundamental ethics of human interaction are communal ethics of justice and respect. In their writings social work ethics are developing along lines first mapped out by the Hebrew sages thousands of years before!

This supports a conclusion that the contracted, non-communal worlds that most of us now inhabit may not come close enough to God’s intention for humanity. Human beings may all need non-contracted, communal living to mature us and build virtuous character.

So how does wisdom literature help us to integrate the conflicting imperatives to keep a confidence secret and to tell the truth?

In the sapiental tradition, creation-order wisdom functions not so much as a rule book but as a tool of character formation. It aims to embed values in us through the observation of the order of the creation, the precepts and actions of the Creator-Redeemer, and our own experience.

The principle goal of Scripture is not to provide a complex of rights that are in tension, or indeed a matrix of duties that are in tension, but to form us into virtuous people (Goldsworthy 2000, p413). This is because precepts can never be comprehensive enough to exclude the need for judgement, an assertion Brown illustrates by asking the reader to compare two contradictory verses — Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5 (Brown 1996, p.13). The tension between conflicting duties (for example the duties to tell the truth and to keep confidences) is resolved not by ever-extending case-law, but by the judgement of people of virtuous character — which includes the capacity for complete honesty about our motives.

In our pursuit of community, we should not be blindly in favour of the instrumental virtues.

“By definition, instrumental virtues are pragmatic and have the potential to be vices, depending upon the goal involved.” (Brown 1996, pp.24-25). For example, diligence can assist the tyrant to be more successful in enforcing his tyranny. The instrumental virtues must be subject to ultimate virtues. As we orient our communities around justice, equity, mercy and grace, we will be freed to use information, not for tyranny, but for liberty, because the instrumental virtues become subservient to the moral virtues (Brown 1996, pp.26-27).

The questions we must ask ourselves whenever we face dilemmas about whether to withhold or impart information are questions about our motives and about what action will serve “righteousness, justice and equity” (Proverbs 1:3b ESV).

This examination cannot be done in isolation since we are all shaped by one community or another. For those shaped by the community-building words of Scripture ethical behaviour requires honesty and the courage to participate in, rather than withdraw from, the challenges of community. Brown cites Birch and Rasmussen when he says that “while character is the ‘chief architect of our decisions and actions,’ the community is the ‘chief architect of character’.” (Brown 1996, p.14). Thus growth in character is found to be a corporate adventure inviting the question: what sort of church do we need to become to form and be formed into a truthful and confidential community?

Some suggestions for best practice

The concluding observations argue that tight policies and laws will be counter-productive. That should not hinder us from being able to set out some good practice guidelines — though this must be done with caution!

What are good reasons to keep a confidence secret, or to not tell the truth?

  1. For personal protection – Esther 2:20 – though we should balance this by saying that there is strong Biblical encouragement for us to preach the good news about Jesus even at the risk of our goods or lives. It is nevertheless helpful to acknowledge the motive of personal protection so that we are able to instruct children wisely in order to minimise exposure to abuse. Children need to be taught that there are some things that should not be kept secret – even if they were forced to promise secrecy under duress. In Numbers 30, written from within a patriarchal social setting, Scripture gives a father and a husband authority to release a daughter or wife from her promise! Even those who quibble about the degree of male headship evident in Numbers 30, can surely welcome the principle that a true use of authority can be to liberate people from their rash promises. It seems God was the first to think of ‘cooling-off-periods’ for contracts!
  2. The recognition that it is not always in a person’s best interests to know everything – Deut. 29:29.
  3. To allow honest, legal activity to proceed unhindered by any who oppose it – John 7:10.
  4. To protect ourselves from the danger of boasting about good deeds – Matt. 6:1-6.

What are bad reasons to keep a confidence secret, or to not tell the truth?

  1. When you wish to keep the power source hidden – Exodus 7:10-11.
  2. When you wish to hide your sin from others – Deut. 27:15.
  3. When you are plotting to usurp someone’s power or position – 2 Sam 15:10.
  4. When you are secretly aiming to attack the vision or teaching of a church community without the approval of its properly constituted leadership – 2 Peter 2:1.

Any decision to keep a secret must be tested with both sets of questions or else we may deceive ourselves about our true motives.

Disciplines to help keep relationships clean and reconciled.

Some attitudes and behaviours undermine healthy fellowship. The second part of the Ten Commandments gives us some basic guidance for what to avoid. In addition we can add guidance from other parts of Scripture.

1. Avoid favouritism. James 2:1-8.

We do not treat people differently on account of their wealth, education, background, family, influence…

2. Avoid selfish ambition. Phil.2:1-4.

We do not look out for our own interests but rather we look out for the interests of others.

3. Avoid isolating ourselves. 1 Cor.12:15-20.

False inferiority can cause us to isolate ourselves from the rest of the body. Not recommended.

4. Avoid pride and superiority. 1 Cor.12:21-26.

There are no grounds for bad pride. See 1 Cor.4:6-7. (There is such a thing as ‘good’ pride).

5. Avoid judging one another. Rom.14:13.

We should not condemn others by judging that they cannot change or be different in the future.

6. Avoid unforgiveness. Eph.4:32.

We are commanded to forgive our fellow believers. The Lord’s Prayer is also relevant.

7. Avoid provocative speech. Gal.5:26.

We avoid a wrong kind of frank speaking in which we unload our ill feelings rather than seeking to minister God’s grace to a person.

8. Avoid taking offence. 1 Pet.2:8.

Taking offence is a sin according to Jesus. You can tell how thoroughly you have died to self by assessing how easy you are to offend. John 16:1 I have told you all this so that you will not be offended [lit]. See Proverbs 19:11b as well.

Guard how you use your tongue. Proverbs 6:16-19

Our speech has a powerful impact on our fellowship. And so does what we listen to and how we listen. Above all we should reflect on our motives — and what sort of love is revealed by our desire to get personal information, or by our desire to speak out personal information we are privy to. In addition to that self-examination…

Scripture gives us guidance about how we speak and listen:

  • Do not tell lies about others (see the ninth commandment in Exodus 20:16).
  • Don’t stir up dissension.
  • Do not speak against one another or judge one another — James 4:11-12.
    If we do speak badly of a fellow believer whose work are we doing? See Rev.12:9-10.
  • Do not agree to a “Secrecy Trap”. 1 John 1:7.
    “Don’t tell anyone else, but…” is a secrecy trap. Do not confuse confidentiality with secrecy traps. Your doctor is not free to talk about your case with the next patient, but she is free to discuss it with her colleagues, or a consultant. Do not put people into secrecy traps and never accept information on the condition of total secrecy.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say. Matt.5:33-37.
  • Do not grumble against each other. James 5:9. Grumbling seems like a small sin to us but it is a grave one in God’s eyes — 1 Cor.10:1-13. Have you ever had someone grumble to you? How did you handle that person?
  • Guard your ears — do not listen to gossip. Prov.20:19.
  • Do not accept anonymous information. Ask “who told you this?”
  • Guard your lips — do not spread gossip. Prov.26:20.
  • Make sure the information is given to the person whose responsibility it is to receive it. Anyone else who becomes involved unnecessarily is what the New Testament calls a “meddler” or “busybody”, which are also grave sins in God’s sight (see 1 Peter 4:15).
  • Keep a good spirit — generous and humble in attitude. Phil.2:3 and Gal.6:1.

Some useful questions that act like salt in our church because they help to clean up our speech:

  • Why are you telling me this?
  • Where did you get your information?
  • Have you checked the facts?
  • Have you asked those directly involved to verify the report is true
  • Can I quote you on this?

Adapted from Dan Barraco, Christian Fellowship of Columbia, Missouri, USA

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John Wesley taught these rules about keeping relationships healthy:

  • We will not listen or willingly enquire after any ill concerning another.
  • If we do hear of any ill in another’s life we will not be forward to believe it.
  • As soon as possible we will ask the person concerned to verify the facts.
  • Until this is done no word will be spoken to any about the ill news.
  • After communicating with the person we will not breathe any word about the matter to others.
  • We will keep these rules unless we feel bound in conscience to break one of them.

Nicky Gumbel gives this advice:

Before you open your mouth ask yourself about what you are about to say:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?

I also recommend this blog post that opens up Psalms 15 and 24 on the subject of getting along with one another.


Scripture quotations taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, TODAY’S NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright © 2004 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, a division of Hodder Headline Ltd. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked ESV are from the anglicized edition of The Holy Bible, English Standard VersionTM published by HarperCollins Publishers copyright © 2001, 2002 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Brown, W (1996), Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Brueggemann, W (1983), In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press

Carson, D (1991), The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), Leicester, Apollos

Fee, G & Stuart D (1983), How to Read the Bible for all It’s Worth, London, Scripture Union

Goldsworthy, G (2000) The Goldsworthy Trilogy: Gospel and Kingdom, Gospel and Wisdom, The Gospel in Revelation, Carlisle, Paternoster Press

Hauerwas, S & Willimon, W (1999), The Truth About God: the Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville, Tennessee, Abingdon Press

Moo, D (2000), The Letter of James, Leicester, Apollos


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